I’m thirteen. I'm in my relative’s garage, where we would all hangout. The garage has always been dull. Its gray walls stacked with boxes of dusty car parts, gig equipment and miscellaneous gadgets. It has an old, ripped, black sofa with stains discarded from their living room, and a stackable shoe-rack that exists in most garages, including mine. The garage always smells like hookah, that culturally-specific water pipe that is very popular in the Middle East and many parts of Asia. I could always sniff the burnt smell of whatever flavor was used the night before.
The garage was the place where Chaldean families caught up with each other, built each other up, and knocked down anyone who stepped out of the fold. It was where we smoked hookah, shared gossip, and watched the neighborhood saunter by. It was where you went when you wanted to stop by without really stopping in.
The garage has a few beige folding chairs stacked against the walls for guests. There was a time when the garage was filled with the sounds of laughter, gossip, and loud Arabic music streaming through the speakers. I can still vividly hear the calming sound of the water bubbles every time someone would inhale. I can still smell burnt charcoal and flavored tobacco with each exhale. I can still feel the thick smoke get in my long black hair and brown eyes.
My relatives, who were either born or grew up in the States told me I was Chaldean.
“What’s that?” I naively asked.
“We are our own people where we trace our roots to ancient Babylon in what is now Iraq. We are Catholics and a religious minority, who were persecuted for our religion in a predominantly Muslim country.”
I learned that the Chaldean culture is ancient. The community of Chaldeans who also happen to be immigrants have great pride in their culture. The culture comes with a lot of expectations and norms, especially for women. No one is exempt from obeying and following the culture since immigrant communities like mine cling to traditions that protect the culture.
The different places I have occupied throughout my life enriched yet complicated my sense of racial identity. I was born in Bagdad, Iraq in 2001, but my time in my hometown of Baghdad was limited due to the Iraq war in 2003. My family and I had to emigrate from Iraq for our safety. We applied for permanent residence in the U.S through family sponsorship, but the process typically takes years, which it did. Luckily, at the time, my father was fortunate enough to seek an employment visa in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and we were granted residence there in 2008. I was seven at the time, so I essentially grew up and spent most of my childhood in the UAE.
We didn’t have close family, just a few distant members who also resided in the UAE. I cherished my time in the UAE because it was my first permanent home. I was surrounded with a diverse group of people, mainly other Arabs with different nationalities. My friends were all Arabs, my community was Arab, my church was Arab, my everyday language was Arabic. In fact, I still had not met one single Chaldean person or knew of any (besides my family).
Many Chaldeans fled to the U.S amid war. The 2003 U.S invasion displaced many Iraqis. Chaldeans reside in states like Michigan, California, Chicago, and Arizona. Michigan in particular has become the heartland of Chaldeans due to the established community filled with resources and opportunities. That wasn’t the case in the United Arab Emirates. Nonetheless, my life was altered and turned upside down in 2015.
We were finally granted residence in the states after a 13-year wait.
My family decided to start a new life in the U.S to seek better opportunities and be with our extended family since they had been living in the states for a decade or so. I was devastated to leave my friends and what I considered my home behind. I had no idea what my new life would be in the U.S.
Although I was ethnically Chaldean, my time in the UAE didn’t allow me to explore my own culture until I was in the U.S. It seemed like I had a new identity and label placed on me, and I didn’t know what that meant for me. Moving to the States at 13 to such a heavily populated Chaldean city meant that it was inevitable that I would be influenced by the ideals of my culture in this new country. I never once thought of my ethnic identity when I was in my hometown, nor in my seven years in the UAE. This all changed when I was here in the U.S.
I was facing and battling multiple border culture crises. Am I Arab, Chaldean, or American? I didn’t know what I was, but one identity seemed destined for me.
“Get in the picture, we are taking a selfie,” my relatives shouted.
“Let me fix my hair,” I said.
“You don’t smile right,” one of them said to me.
Do Chaldean girls smile a particular way in America? Obviously, there's a cultural difference, I thought while spreading my lips to match their cartoon smiles. I internally thought to myself. I became self-conscious about my smile and teeth. From then on, I started smiling with my mouth shut. I didn’t think much of the comment because after all, our family nights in the garage were just for fun.
One of those hookah nights in the garage, a relative shared her wedding pictures with my cousins and me. I noted immediately that all of the females in the wedding party all looked identical. Skinny, young with their light skin and tight dresses. I’m sure the dresses were tailored to fit their “perfect” matching bodies. She pointed at a picture of her bridesmaids, in awe admiring how good looking they all were. Their “perfect” wedding. Their “perfect” friends. With the girls, lined up like trophies from separate sports, I could see the absence of chemistry through the lens. Each was decorated like a kind of lifeless doll in the same shiny fabric, with the same standard of perfection, with different unrealistic expectations for the culture they were charged to uphold.
She pointed to another, and had the audacity to utter,
“You would have been my bridesmaid if you were skinny, but I only chose skinny girls, to have my wedding pictures turn out perfect.”
I was appalled. Blood flew to my cheeks with humiliation. I am sure my face turned red. I remember thinking how her comment was so uncalled for. Did I really just hear that? Did she really just say that?
Chaldeans go all out for their weddings, and they can be extravagant to impress their guests. For my family member, in addition to the menu, decorations, and flower arrangements, upholding an unrealistic body standard was key and reflects one of the expectations of being a Chaldean girl:
“Chaldean girls have to be skinny.”
This was one of the first memories of being told –” what Chaldean girls should be like.” I should be skinny, they said.
During another garage gathering, I was called out for the shape of my nose.
“Have you considered getting a nose job?” they asked.
“I have never once thought about the size or shape of my nose,” I responded, becoming used to their routine degradations. I never paid close attention to my smile, body, and nose, but these comments were revealing something to me about Chaldeans girls and women— there is a certain code I wasn't meeting.
The pressure to meet a certain cultural beauty standard led to a poor body image and an eating disorder. I quickly, painfully learned by these comments that I am only a Chaldean girl If I abide by these unrealistic standards.
I’m fourteen. I have just started high school and I know that my parents left everything behind to give me and my siblings a better life and opportunities.
At the time, I was exploring my interests and possible career avenues. I was interested in beauty school; I was strangely interested in dental school; I was interested in law school. I was like any other teenager dreaming in the wild and expressing what I wanted to be when I grew up.
While inhaling the hookah, one of my relatives mockingly asked, “So, what is it that you exactly want to be?” Her snarky voice was meant to get everyone to laugh. Everyone turned to me. They painted evil smirks on their lips and waited for my response. I should have known that answering outside of their norms would only lead to more humiliation.
Without a hesitation, I strongly replied, “I want to be on billboards.” I met their eyes with a fire of my own; I rebelled. They stopped smiling. How dare I have real dreams of my own, I imagined them thinking.
Surprised looks washed over their faces “Chaldean girls get married and have babies” they blurted—that’s what Chaldean girls do.
This memory stays with me still, this recollection of being told what Chaldean girls do. I should get married and have babies.
The Chaldean culture is family-oriented, and they have large families. Although the culture places high value for both men and women on marriage and children, the social and cultural pressure is significantly stronger on women. Since the Chaldean culture (per the name) is rooted in the Catholic faith, it’s believed that women were created to bear children and that sex and marriage are designed only for procreation. In what is inarguably a patriarchal culture, it’s very common for Chaldean women to be stay-at-home wives and for the men to be the breadwinner.
Since it had only been a year in the U.S. I was still learning my culture. I couldn't understand what the comment implied and all I could think about was, how am I going to be told that I can’t have a dream of my own in a god-damn rusty dark garage?
I was angry.
I no longer thought our garage hang outs were just for fun and I shouldn’t take everything so seriously. I started to get defensive and take things personally.
However, I couldn’t be angry. I couldn’t question anything. I couldn’t be emotional. I wasn’t allowed to show how hurt and insulted I was because I had also been instructed that Chaldean girls don’t lash out. Chaldean girls collect themselves and act classy.
It’s very common for Chaldean women to appear calm and collected to remain in their feminine polite energy. These “norms” and expectations are rooted in misogyny, and they are common in many cultures, but I was always reminded that’s what Chaldeans girls are. I internalized these norms as “Chaldean like” and I understood that questioning them would be me going against my culture. After all, who am I to challenge and question an ancient culture that survived exile, war, persecution?
I am fifteen. Another night in the garage. I am engrossed in my phone, half listening to everyone engage in a very toxic conversation about our 10-year-old female cousin, who is developing breasts earlier than usual. There is a comment uttered about how her breasts are “asymmetrical.” I snapped my head up. I lost it.
As my phone fell to my lap, I said, “She is fucking 10, leave her alone.”
I glared. I understood that I wasn’t the only target: It was anyone who didn’t conform to the standards and expectations of being a Chaldean girl. The sense of injustice had been gradually rising and eating away at me. I saw myself in the 10-year-old cousin, and I couldn’t help but stand up for her. I was furious. But how dare I be?
One relative took it upon herself to challenge me when they all in fact had humiliated me: “Why do you have to yell when you speak? You know… Chaldeans girls are quiet. “And suddenly, everyone else started adding their two cents.
It was like an echo of voices attacking me. One said, “No man is going to marry you if you raise your voice. Chaldean men like quiet girls.” They all rolled their eyes at me as if to say: here she goes again.
“You’re such a bitch,” I remarked to one of them. I lost control.
How could I forget? How dare I challenge them? Chaldean girls are petite, perfect, soft-spoken, feminine, and shy. That’s what Chaldeans girls are.
Why can’t I accept that? Why do I always have to question that? What is even wrong with that?
It became clear to me that I always felt diminished, small, attacked, and unseen. Not unrelated to external pressure to apologize for existing, at this point I was also suffering from an eating disorder and my mental health started to deteriorate.
I’m sixteen. Finally, one of these nights, I stop attending the gatherings in the garage. I had tried in the past, but I always thought: what if they change? What if they don’t mean to hurt me? This time, I had been like an overflowing bottle that ruptured and exploded, and I couldn’t take it anymore.
I promised myself I would find it in myself to never come back. I could no longer smell the charcoal smell in my hair. I could no longer hear the sound of the water bubbles from the hookah. I could no longer hear about the girl, who got a nose job and had an extravagant wedding. I certainly couldn’t hear about what Chaldeans girls are anymore. The garage began to torment me and started serving as a haunting image of why I wasn’t enough. Skinny enough. Pretty enough. Polite enough. Submissive enough. Classy enough. Desirable enough. Chaldean enough.
I slowly fell into a cycle of anxiety and depression. The decision to stop being with my relatives made me question my worth. It was lonely. However, every time I considered going back, I was reminded of how miserable I always felt being there.
I am seventeen. They don’t stop gathering just because I stop going. I’m still welcome and invited because after all, we are all family, and they were just defending beliefs and behaviors that importantly upheld my culture. Their comments and behaviors made me uncomfortable, hurt, and angry, but they didn’t understand that. Contrarily, I also didn’t understand them and apparently - my culture, so I viewed myself as an outsider, an outlier, and the black sheep. I knew in their eyes, quite simply, I was just “wrong.”
One day, I was home alone while they were all gathered for a birthday party. The garage was open since it was a beautiful sunny day and I had just come back from a walk. One relative stormed in the garage (since we live in the same neighborhood) and got in the house through the kitchen door.
“Hey… why are you home? You’re supposed to be at the birthday party,” she asked in confusion.
“I know, I chose not to go,” I said, my voice shaking.
“Wait, why? I don’t understand.” Her eyebrows furrowed.
“I just didn’t want to,” I responded.
“May I ask you a question and you be honest with me?” she said aggressively.
My eyes widened and my heart started beating so fast. I began to shake and sweat.
“Yeaahhh” I stuttered.
“What is wrong with you? Why are you like that?” She stormed out and left.
Hot tears coursed down my cheeks, and I broke down wailing, bawling my eyes out. The uncalled-for question just solidified and validated all my feelings of unworthiness and insecurity.
Maybe there was something wrong with me. Maybe I was the problem. Why can’t I just be a normal Chaldean girl? I wondered, still uncontrollably crying on the floor. I wished I was never a Chaldean girl. But my feelings of indifference weren't a choice. I couldn’t be anything else.
Physically and emotionally, I was outside of the norms. I didn’t fit the mold. I didn’t follow the code. I didn’t look the part. I didn’t act the part. Sadly, they saw it as a betrayal and believed that there was perhaps something wrong with me.
I am eighteen. I don’t really begin to feel consciously uncomfortable as a Chaldean girl until I am eighteen. I reach the realization that my feelings of discomfort and exclusion all this time have been due to my resistance to abiding by the expectations for being a Chaldean girl. It took me all these years to realize the root cause of my confusion as to why I felt misunderstood. The difference in culture forced me to gradually come to this realization.
At this point I legally have autonomy. I can seek professional help without needing parental permission. I had been waiting for the day that I could use my savings to go see a professional and address my eating disorder, which affected my mental and emotional well-being, not to mention my body. Paying out of pocket, I began seeing both a health coach and a therapist.
My first therapist was a Chaldean woman. This would be productive right? She would understand and relate to me as a fellow Chaldean woman. This couldn’t have been farther from the truth. After laying out the comments and behaviors my relatives engaged in, she had a few thoughts.
“Have you considered praying the rosary?” she asked.
“I have tried to pray about it, but it didn’t help,” I passively responded. My frustration burned with a new passion.
“Your case is common in many of my teenage Chaldean patients.”
“You need to learn to love the culture and your relatives because after all, “that’s who we are as Chaldeans,” she obnoxiously cackled.
It was like a nightmare. But I couldn’t wake up from this.
That was the last day I saw her. I sat in my car and sobbed.
Her unethical and completely unprofessional advice reflected her own narrow experience being a Chaldean woman. She also painfully triggered my relatives’ same words: Who are you to challenge us? That’s who we are. I could either accept this, or continue to be an outcast through their eyes. And her praying advice was to essentially pray away my trauma and be healed from whatever there was wrong with me. I fell back into the mindset: what the hell is wrong with me? Maybe I am the problem.
A few months later, I specifically hired an American therapist. After a few sessions of evaluating me and hearing my story, she assured me of something:
“There is nothing wrong with you.” I was relieved, yet I still did not believe her.
“You don’t have any personality disorders,”
“Can you check again? Maybe you’re missing something in your diagnosis.” The lingering feeling of frustration and confusion resurfaced.
“I think I might have something,” I was in disbelief.
“You need to take a deep breath; I am a professional and I am confident in my diagnosis. The root cause of all your problems is very much cultural. We can work through that.” I felt nervously, tentatively relieved; maybe there isn't something wrong with me.
I now know that a lot of my responses were trauma responses: yo-yo dieting, lashing out, workaholic tendencies (I picked up three jobs at one point to avoid family gatherings). I learned a new craft to feel worthy and important, and I wanted to perfect it (unfortunately, culturally rewarding perfectionism is also a trauma response). There were a lot of behaviors I had to unlearn, and I worked with my therapist. I learned to regulate my emotions, and channel my feelings in healthy ways. I learned deep breathing techniques to regulate my nervous system.
Another family gathering that I refused to go to.
“Are you not coming again?” a relative asked.
“I will pass, I am not going.” I was nervous but I was going to calmly stand up for myself this time.
“If you don’t show up, they will think you are crazy and that there is something wrong with you,”
Here it was again. My heart ached and I was sick to my stomach. In the past, I had lashed out, screamed, cursed, and cried. I didn't want to be reminded of what Chaldean girls do: “they need to learn to love the culture because that’s who Chaldean girls are.” Not this time. I held my head high and uttered, “They can think I am crazy; I will be fine.”
I slowly began to use the skills I was learning from my therapist. One coping mechanism was to write it out, so I would journal my feelings and try to understand why the comments were being made. I began to see and feel paradigm shifts. Peace and control were now something attainable for me.
In the midst of it all, I started college, and I was excited to meet new people and learn. I quickly realized how much I enjoyed being a college student. I liked having open discussions with my peers. I liked being encouraged to use my authentic voice. I liked writing about topics that spoke to me and even channeling my diversity and immigrant story in my writing. I also discovered that I was smart, I was seen that way, and that I liked it.
I was speaking up, asking questions, advocating for others, calling out injustice, speaking for myself, and challenging ideas, and arguing against issues that mattered to me. I was now praised for it. The same things I was criticized for within my family were the same things I was being celebrated for in college. I found a community where I was welcomed, seen, heard, and validated for my thoughts. I gained a new sense of confidence. Maybe there wasn’t something wrong with me.
I am nineteen. At this point, I am no longer invited to family gatherings besides major holidays. It becomes clear that I am intentional about not being there. They know that.
“You have put on some weight,” they would remark. Typically, it would have taken me to the same place:” Chaldean girls are skinny– that’s what Chaldean girls are. I’m not skinny enough. So, I’m not Chaldean enough.”
This time around, I wasn’t affected. I was navigating both worlds, riding that powerful but complicated third rail of the border culture. I lived in one culture that accepted me and saw me for who I was while also inhabiting one that didn’t.
I was busy working hard as a writing major and in my new role as a writing specialist, and I felt empowered to use my voice. I latched on-to the world that understood me: my professors, peers, co-workers, and other students that I was helping (I was hired to be a writing specialist who aids students with their writing). Slowly, I started using my voice to advocate for my students.
I am twenty. I am professionally, academically, and personally blossoming. I no longer need to see a therapist. I have found a supportive group of friends and mentors in college. I am offered an opportunity to co-author a chapter for publication that I was beyond proud of.
The echo of the questioning began: “Why would anyone publish you? What do you really have to say? No one is ever going to publish you, are they?”
Their voices have fed a latent imposter syndrome and discouraged me from accepting my publication offer. I find myself in the same place where I was told lies such as Chaldeans girls don’t have dreams. Chaldean girls get married and have babies.
I didn’t lash out. I was tempted, but I didn't want to be reminded of what Chaldean girls are: Chaldeans girls don’t lash out; they are quiet and collected.
In the face of these pressures, I didn’t storm out. I never responded to them, and I didn’t give them my power. My silence spoke louder than any hateful commentary they could muster towards me.
Authentically valued and seen, I continued thriving in college. A month before I turned twenty-one, I won a prestigious award for promoting racial tolerance and unity among my college community. Achieving this goal of cultivating diversity and inclusion, breaking down cultural stereotypes through my academic achievements and leadership involvement, made me prouder than ever. I couldn’t believe I was being celebrated for something I was pushed to ignore growing up.
This win gave me many revelations and epiphanies about my life and background. To my relatives, that wasn’t enough.
“I don’t understand what you really did,” they remarked.
“What is the big deal about this?”
More than ever, I was no longer affected. I prevailed. The hard-won boundaries I’d struggled to build were standing strong. The win from the competitive scholarship award gave me a new sense of validation, confidence, and credibility. It didn't matter what they thought of me. I understood that the same people who that rejected me wouldn't celebrate me. Why would they? But I didn't care.
Shortly after, I came across a Chaldean woman who works on campus, and she expressed her pride in me.
“I heard and read your story and I admire your courage to share your voice. Not everyone can find their voice and you did.”
I smiled humbly, filled with pride.
“I am Chaldean, you’re Chaldean, and you are my inspiration,” she said.
That interaction left me filled with a new desire. I could only hope that she could see the depth of my passion for what I was fighting for and the years it took me to get this far. I had a burning desire to express to her that I am not your typical Chaldean girl.
I am now twenty-one. I have come to terms with the fact that I am never going to be fully accepted in my own community without concealing or outright sacrificing who I am. I am never going to be a traditional Chaldean girl. I am a progressive Chaldean girl, thinker, and advocate whose concept of beauty, size, personal power, and authenticity is my own. I am a progressive Chaldean girl who has a higher tolerance for difference and an appreciation for difference. I am a progressive Chaldean girl who has a different sense of life’s purpose. I recognize that I can be a Chaldean girl but with a sense of openness and acceptance for anyone who doesn’t fit the mold. At one point, I didn't understand why they thought of me as too progressive. Perhaps because I am anti-racist, because I am pro-choice, because I am pro LGBTQ+, pro diversity. I now understand why they viewed me as a threat.
Considering the history of persecution of many Chaldeans back in Iraq, Chaldeans generally worry about the survival of their culture including their identity, religion, and language. As with most diasporic communities, they face the challenges of keeping identity and tradition alive within other cultures, so they strive with passion to preserve their identity within other cultures by rejecting and challenging any outside social and cultural threats.
The good news is I understand why I don’t fit in. It’s not because there is something wrong with me or even because there is something wrong with my community. I am not against my community. I am not against traditional Chaldean girls who easily fit in and belong. I am inherently different, but I will always be a Chaldean girl. I will always listen and dance to Arabic and Chaldean music. I will always eat Chaldean and Iraqi cuisine. I will always read, speak, and write in Arabic and Chaldean. I rest on and draw from the power of my Chaldean ancestors.
Recently, I politely expressed this attitude to my relatives. The things I fight for matter.
“When you grow up one day doing your liberal representation– fighting for gay and women rights, all Chaldeans will hate you,” he reminded me.
“Oh well, they can hate me,” I remarked rebelliously. “I will represent and fight for justice and equality for anyone, especially as an aspiring attorney.” I know that my words will not change them, and that is okay.
Surprising me in his savvy articulation of my complicated border culture existence, a relative tells me, “You’re going to have a hard life balancing and navigating both worlds,” he remarked.
“Trust me, I know. I know.” I said.
I know that my choices and words now are my own. Nothing will change the idea that they have of me “ignoring” my culture. The celebration of my value will come from the world, and I will never need their praise.
Their support and opinion will never matter to me or change the path that I have begun to blaze. Further, this path will show Chaldean girls everywhere that it is okay to value their identity and find themselves, there is nothing wrong with them. Even though I did not have this kind of inspiration for myself, I never want another Chaldean girl to be a black sheep alone, to be made to feel as if she needs to apologize for being who she is.
I found myself back in that garage a few weeks ago, I had to pick up a gadget and I had been running errands, not looking to be there in the first place. I wish I could say that I felt at peace being in there, that the years of distance washed away the anxiety this space occupied in my body. Not unlike many trauma survivors, I was still tense, vigilant —nervous and ready to be attacked about something.
One relative offered me to hit the hookah. I whipped my luscious black hair back and replied, “I need to get home and practice my speech that I am giving tomorrow.” He smirked and condescendingly said, “good for you.”
I know he didn’t mean it. I looked away eager to pick up what I needed and leave.
He tried again, “Why haven’t you visited? We need to bring our good old days back.”
I looked over and smirked.
He wouldn’t get to me this time. I took a deep breath, “I am a busy gal.”
And I turned and left.
Furthermore, she is actively co-authoring a book chapter with her professor on racial microaggressions where she analyzes exclusionary educational practices that put early-career faculty and undergraduate students at risk. Drawing from her own experiences as a student of color, she aims to shed light on the possibilities for social justice leadership, workplace activism, and student empowerment within writing classrooms.
Following the completion of her bachelor's degree, she aspires to pursue law school as she is currently studying for the law school admissions test (LSAT). Mena hopes to be a civil rights attorney and eventually start a non-profit where she fights for issues, she is most passionate about. Beyond her academic pursuits, Mena enjoys traveling, playing tennis, and makeup artistry.
Keeper of the Dream: Sterling Heights immigrant finds her voice as advocate for linguistic justice
Keeper of the Dream: Mena Hannakachl